The well-worn map, pinned to the table by all four corners, was bathed in the late afternoon sun coming through the latticed windows of the war room. Bent over it, Kadar Ibn’ Al-Amar traced a path from Zammar’s capital to the northern frontier, and glowered at the spot where his finger stopped.
“The monastery of Al’Zafyra, the sapphire of the north.” He pronounced the words with distaste. “That’s where my informant says Sadie’s books are located.”
Prince Jalen ‘Anaq Al-Jameyri, heir to the kingdom of Zammar and Kadar’s oldest friend, leaned over the map and frowned. “This will be a problem.”
Kadar nodded silently. He could feel a tendril of hair brush against his day’s growth of beard, and he had to stop himself from swatting it away from his cheek in annoyance. He needed to visit a palace barber soon, he thought, before it became any more problematic. In the last few months, he hadn’t had much time to devote to his personal grooming, and his hair was getting uncomfortably long.
“Are you certain?” Jalen asked a minute later, as Kadar’s silence lengthened.
“I’m afraid so. The man I talked to was adamant. The traveling caravan who bought them after her house was razed was headed for Al’Zafyra. They sold them to the monastery.”
And, as everyone knew, any knowledge the monastery of Al’Zafyra acquired—books, scrolls, manuscripts, and sometime even people—was then locked up, as they considered it a treasure to be protected at all cost. The monastery—and the reclusive religious order that called it home—was completely cut off from the world, difficult to access and closed to travelers. Getting them to part with Sadie’s books would prove difficult, especially since the books’ theft couldn’t be proven.
“This is unfortunate,” Jalen said somberly. He ran the tip of a finger down the curse-mark on his cheek. “I haven’t told Sadie yet, but I can feel the curse waking again.”
Kadar nodded once more, making sure his expression stayed a stoic mask. His thoughts, however, were not so calm. Although not wholly unexpected, Jalen’s admission came as a blow. When Sadie had suppressed the curse taking over Jalen’s mind, she had been clear that it would only be a reprieve. Still, Kadar had hoped her ritual would stop the curse’s advance for at least the next turn of the seasons. This would have given Kadar more time to find a solution that didn’t include trying to steal books from Al’Zafyra.
But now, it seemed he wouldn’t have a choice.
“You should tell Sadie,” Kadar commented. Jalen’s betrothed wouldn’t appreciate being kept in the dark. He didn’t think Jalen would be able to do so for long, in any case. She was far too perceptive to stay blind to the situation.
“It would only worry her unnecessarily,” Jalen dismissed Kadar’s concern. “There is still time before it comes to the point I cannot control myself anymore.”
“She’d want to know, Jalen. She’s your betrothed. And then, she needs to know in case of an episode.”
Jalen gave him a droll look. “Sometimes, you sound worse than a nanny, Kadar.”
Kadar’s glare made Jalen chuckle, but he quickly grew serious again. “I will give you a letter of introduction for their high priest, but even that might not be enough to get you inside the monastery. The Zammar crown wields little influence there, unfortunately.”
It was a good thing the monastery’s inhabitants weren’t interested in more than defending their precious books, Kadar thought. If they turned their garrison of elite warriors to less noble pursuits, they could become a problem for Zammar. But the monastery had existed for more than a thousand years, and its independence from the earthly powers of kings was almost as old. Certainly older than the neighboring kingdoms of Zammar, Qatna, and Bathu, on which borders it stood.
“A letter from you is better than nothing. If it doesn’t work, I’ll find another way to get inside.”
They both leaned over the map again, and Kadar scowled at it. “This should take at least a few weeks of travel, and I might need another week or more once I get to the monastery. Will you last that long?”
“I will,” Jalen replied. He straightened and moved to the window to look down onto the gardens below. “You will return during the season of rains. The roads will be difficult to travel.”
“I’m aware of that fact, but it can’t be avoided.” You are running out of time.
Jalen snorted in what Kadar knew to be annoyance. “I’m not yet doomed to madness, Kadar. Perhaps you should wait until the rains pass before embarking on this journey.”
“It would delay the retrieval of the books several moons. Do you think you have this kind of time?”
Jalen did not turn to look at him. “No,” he said after a long moment. “I don’t think I have that long.”
“Do I have your permission to pursue this lead at once, then?” Kadar asked, more as a rhetorical question than because he needed Jalen’s approval.
Jalen sighed. “You have my permission.”
“Then, I’ll leave at dawn. The sooner I reach Al’Zafyra, the sooner I can assess the situation there and retrieve Sadie’s books.”
Turning to face him, Jalen replied, “I will draft the letter this afternoon. It will be ready for your departure. Bring however many men you need with you.”
Kadar shook his head. “Unnecessary. I’ll have a better chance of success if I travel alone.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes.” He nodded at Jalen, his lips twitching into a smirk. “But your concern about my well-being has been duly noted.”
“You are becoming reckless, my friend,” Jalen remarked.
“I’m being realistic,” Kadar shot back. “I’ll bring back those books, and you can finally get rid of that curse once and for all.”
Jalen nodded, and said more seriously, “Be safe. I am not ready to appoint a new captain of my guard.”
Kadar saluted. “Understood. I won’t fail.”
“I know. May your ancestors watch over you.”
“And yours over you.”
Princess Ahnanti ‘den Bathu-arazi patted her artfully coiffed hair and straightened her skirts, feeling uncomfortable and out of place wearing the stiff finery. After a lifetime spent attending her father’s court, she should be used to it, but she still wished she could be allowed to wear her usual clothes. Her father’s soldiers had it right: pants were the way to go if one wanted comfort and freedom of movement.
Before she left her chambers, she patted her hip, reassured to feel her dagger nestled in the pocket that she insisted be added to all of her dresses. The weight of a second dagger, sheathed in her boot, reassured her further. In these uncertain times at court, she had learned to never leave her quarters weaponless. Never be caught unarmed. It was one thing her father’s guards had taught her well.
They were good men, all of them.
Ahna smiled and nodded to the guard stationed at the throne room’s entrance. His smile was pained.
Marvelous, she thought, wincing internally. My father is in a bad mood. What did I do this time? She longed for a return of the days when he simply ignored her existence.
Ahna squared her shoulders and waited for the announcement of her arrival. When it came, she stepped into the room as calmly as she could. She walked toward her father, ignoring the stares she received from the gathered courtiers. Upon reaching the dais, she came to her knees in supplication, and touched her forehead to the ground before sitting back on her heels.
“You requested my presence, Father?” she said, still kneeling at his feet.
King Siddha ‘den Bathu-arazi stared down at her, his expression cold. Despite his advancing years and graying hair, he could still be considered a handsome if stern-looking man. Ahna had inherited much of her looks from him, and little from her soft and pretty mother.
King Siddha had never been that interested in his firstborn and only daughter, tending to spend his time and effort on Ahna’s younger brothers, the eldest of whom would inherit the throne one day. It was not as though Ahna wished to rule, in any case. The position seemed quite cumbersome, and dangerous to boot. Nonetheless, some recognition of her worth as something other than a political pawn to be married away would have been welcome.
“Ahnanti,” King Siddha said, and held up a rolled-up parchment.
She recognized the seal adorning it: Zammar’s royal sun. Was this a new missive concerning her betrothal to Zammar’s prince? She thought the terms and dowry had been agreed on already—not that she much cared. This prince or another, her fate would be the same. Seeing her father’s expression, however, she had the sinking feeling something had gone awry with the negotiations.
“Do you know what this is?”
“Another ‘broken engagement’ letter?”
King Siddah crumpled the parchment in his hand and threw it aside at her quip, his face reddened with barely contained rage.
Ahna winced. Too many times already she’d thwarted his attempts to marry her off. She had been warned not to ruin another proposal, and she knew Zammar’s offer was her last chance.
But, she’d done nothing to dissuade the Zammar envoy. Not this time.
“This is a letter in Prince Jalen of Zammar’s own hand putting an end to your agreed upon betrothal. What did you do?”
“N-nothing.” She winced at the stutter in her voice. She didn’t want to appear weak in front of her father or the court. She took a deep breath and continued, “How could I have? I have not left the palace and Prince Jalen lives in Zammar. We’ve never even met.”
“Enough. I will not be made to appear the fool in my own court. This was your last chance, Ahnanti; you knew the consequence of failure.”
“But, Father, I’ve done nothing wrong. I can’t be held responsible for his change of mind!”
“I do not want to hear your excuses anymore. If marriage doesn’t interest you, perhaps a life spent in repentance will.”
She couldn’t finish her sentence. A cold glare from King Siddah silenced her protest. “You will pack only what you need for your journey; where you are going, earthly possessions are unnecessary.”
“But, Father—” she tried again.
“A courier is on his way to the monastery of Al’Zafyra as we speak. They will await your arrival. A lifetime of service to the Thousand Spirits should at least teach you obedience.”
Courtiers murmured in the wake of his pronouncement, and Ahna felt the blood drain from her face. Stifled as she felt at court sometimes, she hadn’t wanted to be exiled from the only home she’d ever known.
“I have made my decision,” King Siddah said, and dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “You leave at dawn.”